Gen F'd: Young workers need to organise and fight back

May 12, 2023
The cover of 'Gen F'd' over an image of young people protesting
Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Gen F'd?
How young Australians can reclaim their uncertain futures

By Alison Pennington
Hardie Grant Books, 2023

Why will the generations born since the mid 1980s most likely be financially poorer than previous generations? This is the first question Alison Pennington poses in her excellent new book Gen F’d?

Pennington describes a process that begins with most young people suffering from years of low-paid, often casual work on entering the workforce.

Most young people begin working on minimum award rates. For example, the 17-year-old rate currently stands at $12.50 an hour. For a 15-year-old worker it is $7.90 an hour. As their rate rises with age, at a certain point they are thrown on the scrap heap by “the most profitable companies in our corporate landscape, like Woolworths, Coles and McDonalds … [as they] replenish their stocks with cheaper, fresh teens”.

After they have been discarded from their initial workplaces, most younger workers then begin at the bottom again as they find low paying casual work elsewhere. A high percentage of young people will struggle to get permanent positions in the workforce until they are over 25 years old — but even then still on low pay, often at award-based minimum rates.

Many young people who went into further education to attempt to gain higher paying employment have also fallen flat. They were led to believe that “low skill” jobs would be phased out due to technology and “higher skilled” jobs would be in demand. But, as Pennington points out: “The jobs we wrongly associated with ‘low skill’ such as caring services and hospitality, have boomed in recent decades. And they’ll keep doing so.”

In 2019, the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) “repayment threshold (was reduced) to $45,881, which saw 130,000 mostly young workers lose income to HECS repayments — two-thirds of whom were in jobs that didn’t even need a degree”.

The compounding effect of years of low wages and high rents, added to today’s high inflation, is eating away any savings that Gen F’d may have been able to accumulate, putting them in an even more precarious position.

Pennington then explains the “Great Australian Dream” of owning your own home is now bypassing many young people and those that have taken on the risk, are being forced into taking out huge loans. These loans — in practice — mean young workers need to find “a suitable life partner, (plus) two regular incomes and savings exceeding $120,000”. And they need to be prepared to pay off debt for their entire working lives.

Another worrying trend is that these pressures have led to extraordinarily high levels of anxiety and other mental illness amongst young people, “…a huge 75% of young people aged between 16–24 now report symptoms of anxiety”.

Pennington quite rightly points out that neoliberalism has been the main driver accelerating these problems — and provides a fine explanation of its beginnings, to the present day.

In the 1990s, under the “fallacy of better economics”, writes Pennington, “Profit-maximising logic entered hyperdrive. Privatisations intensified … stripping our assets in utilities, banks, airlines, telecommunications and more. Everything in the way of business profit became a so-called barrier to economic growth, like taxation, publicly owned utilities, and regulations against dodgy harmful environmental and financial practices.

“Alongside the erosion of public services, tools of redistribution in the tax system were blunted to increase profits. To ensure everyday people toiling on the job got sweet-FA, unions and collective wage-setting were dismantled.”

Neoliberalism has seen the share of gross domestic profit going to workers fall from 58% in 1975 to just 45% in 2022. This is “the lowest level in recorded Australian history. That represents the redirection of $26 billion alone in 2022”, writes Pennington.

Government-owned public housing has plummeted to less than 4% of housing stock due to neoliberal promises that tax breaks, such as negative gearing, would build as much housing as needed. That policy has backfired, as the market has proven that investors are more inclined to watch their investment sky rocket through inflating prices, rather than build more housing.

So why aren’t young people fighting back against their predicament and these terrible injustices?

Pennington argues that there has been a mass disempowerment of people throughout the years of neoliberal governments and their policies. In fact, “…participation in civic and political groups halved between 2010 and 2019, with less than one in ten Australians reporting being active in a union, political party, environmental cause or other civic or consumer rights group”.

This disempowerment has a greater effect on young people as they are steered away from collective action and towards disempowering individual consumer-based campaigns, such as boycotting certain products, placing the right rubbish in the correct bin or signing the right petition. These campaigns have become “both irrelevant and uninspiring for a generation in an economy that can’t plan to save itself”.

Pennington also argues that neoliberal think tanks in the early 1990s deliberately led people away from “…class as a critical analytical concept [which] was increasingly dismissed in social sciences scholarship in favour of studies of identity formation and social differences”. Over time, this has “successfully” steered young people into a misconception that their interests lie in identity politics. She insists that the rise of the internet has assisted these developments by creating an illusion that “[d]efining one’s self through social media platforms and internet technologies was the new terrain for human freedom”.

Finally, Pennington elaborates that “[u]sing neoliberal ideas, big business has achieved the individualisation of structural problems…”, which “means people with largely common interests — workers, women, white, black, whoever — have been positioned as opposing groups vying for the same (diminishing) resources”.

In the final chapters, Pennington’s main solution is that Gen F’d needs to start getting involved in class politics, organising and fighting back. She points to unions, political parties, environmental groups and other social causes as key organising sites.

The one weakness in Pennington’s book is her lack of criticism of the role played by the Labor Party in the neoliberal agenda. After all, it was Labor that brought in the Prices and Incomes Accord of the 1980s, which started the rot and culminated the move away from the industry-wide award system to the enterprise bargaining system we now have. Labor is also responsible for the current Fair Work Act that is so bad for workers, it was left in place even by the Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison Coalition governments when they were in power.

If workers and their unions are to address the distribution of wealth Pennington writes about, it can only be achieved by workers having the ability to remove their labour, without suffering massive fines and jail — a law the current Labor government could change but has no intention of doing.

Pennington writes that “millennials were the largest and most influential voter block behind the re-election of the … Labor government in Victoria”. Whereas, one could argue that, more importantly, there was a 7% swing away from the major parties in that election (including a 6.2% swing against Labor) and the anti-neoliberal Greens and socialist candidates increased their vote.

While Pennington quite rightly demands a redistribution of wealth, she doesn’t take up the issue of the pending tax cuts for the rich worth $240 billion nor the $360 billion of wasted money on the AUKUS submarine deal.

I’m hopeful that Pennington’s lack of criticism of Labor is due more to the vulnerability that left-wing academics face in the system than any real illusions that Labor may be about to do an about face and take on neoliberalism.

All in all, the book is very well worth reading and an important addition to the anti-neoliberal debate for all generations, not just the Gen F’d it is intended for.

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